The fast food workers were joined by other low-wage workers from retail giants like Macy's. So far, 15 separate branches of restaurant chains -- including Burger King, Taco Bell and Wendy's -- have been forced to close for the day as a result of their workers walking off their jobs. The protests are being organized by local alliances of labor, clergy and community groups with support from the Service Employees International Union. No arrests have yet been made, according to organizers, but protests earlier this year (such as one in Seattle) did result in arrests.
"Today, our call for $15 an hour and a union was heard across the country," Devonte Yates, a McDonald's worker from Milwaukee, said in a press release. "If the fast-food industry doesn't want our movement to spread any further, it should pay us enough so that we can support ourselves and our families."
The nationwide protest was intentionally scheduled to fall on the day after the 50th anniversary of the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The historic 1963 march also called for an increase of the minimum wage. Back then demonstrators called for the minimum wage to increase to $2 an hour, the equivalent of $15.26 today.
A growing movement: Thursday's broad turnout is the clearest sign yet that the fast food protests have made the move from the fringe to the front pages of American life. Fast food workers staged the first multi-restaurant walkouts in November 2012. In the ensuing 10 months, cities including Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City have seen similar walkouts. And just last month, workers walked out of their jobs in seven cities in one action, which before today's was the biggest such protest. The movement has also caught the attention across mass media, with such figures as comedian Stephen Colbert devoting attention to the strikes.
And today workers walked out of their jobs throughout the South, which, according to Reuters, has been a "region that has historically been challenging for organized labor."
The new fast food worker: Serving fast food is hardly a new line of work, so what has galvanized the workers? As AOL Jobs has reported, one result of the recent financial crisis is that full-fledged adults with families to support are now relegated to working fast food jobs that were once the domain of teenagers. Indeed, the median age of a fast food worker is now 28, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics has documented. And about 1 in 4 is supporting a child.
The National Restaurant Association (NRA), the industry lobbying group, argues however that the sector remains one in which Americans can "move up the ladder and succeed," as NRA senior vice president Sue Hensley has previously told AOL Jobs via e-mail. "The industry is one of the best paths to achieving the American dream, with 80 percent of owners and managers having started their careers in entry-level positions," she added in her message, which was in keeping with other statements that have been released by NRA spokespeople.